Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ancient Origins of Birthdays
...and Reflections on Mine (Less Ancient)



Today is my birthday - again. It's a funny event filled with dichotomies; it comes every year marking an end to one year and a beginning to another. On the one hand the "big day" begs for reflection, while on the other demands new benchmarks...it's "a whole lot" while ultimately being a day no different then any other (equally as precious and no more divine).

Days of playing "pin the tail on the donkey" with kids on the block, Carvel ice cream cakes and silly hats are far behind, leaving a faint memory of the ignorant revelry that accompanies childhood birthdays. It's not that I'm not equally as excited about the coming year as I was long ago - it's that each year now delivers heavy doses of meaning, filled to the rim with possibility, experience and context. It become serious stuff, that perhaps each year I attempt to take more lightly.

Today I woke up wondering where the heck this idea of birthdays came from in the first place. When and how did the idea of celebrating ones birth really originate ? Before Hallmark took hold of the event, and 1-800-Flowers made their millions...who put the idea on the map of the social psyche? Being the trivia junky that I am, armed with morning java...off I went to figure it out....

Apparently the origin of birthdays as a celebration is pretty old and mysterious stuff, dating back to ancient Egypt and the Pharaoh. One story goes that God gave Joseph some sort of special understanding of a dream by Pharaoh’s butler and baker; the dream foretold that the baker would lose his life three days after Joseph interpreted the dream. Joseph understood that Pharaoh would use the occasion of his own birthday party—to put this baker to death. As the dream had foretold, the baker was hung at the party...I guess we all celebrate in our own way. Ancient scriptures offer little else in terms of birthdays.

The Encyclopedia Judaica has no mention of the celebration of birthdays as part of Jewish ritual. In fact the only religious marking of birth of any kind in Judaism is the Bar Mitzvah - a religious coming of age, which in actuality can be marked on any day but has in secular practice been associated with the 13th birthday.

In Christianity the supposed birthday of Christ is also a total invention. The universal custom of observing Christmas as the birth of Christ, on December 25th, is acknowledged by all the historical authorities as having no basis in actual fact and has no mention in the Bible...and to be specific about it Jesus Christ was born nowhere near December 25th, in the dead of winter.

In fact, birth day celebrations are only mentioned twice in the Scriptures -- once in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament – and both times in reference to customs being observed by pagan people -- an Egyptian Pharaoh and king Herod (interestingly both sort of morally questionable characters).

Even Islam scholars oppose the idea of birthday, stemming from Hadith (the oral traditions relating to words and deeds of Muhammad), which forbids adopting traditions and festivities from other faiths.

So how did Birthdays take off then with so little support?

It took the Roman Empire to spread the word of birthdays, which took on some popularity thanks in part to the Mithras; a non-Christian cult originating in Persia, open only to men which believed in a hierarchy of Gods. Mithra was said to be “the judger of souls” and “the protector,” and was considered the representative of Ahura-Mazda the supreme being (the "one uncreated creator") incarnated into human form in 272 bc. It was said, interesting enough, that he was born of a virgin (like another "famous fella"), who was called the Mother of God. Mithra's birthday was celebrated on another supposed famous birthday - December 25. Ahura-Mazda was called “the light of the world,” and after teaching for 36 years, he ascended into heaven in 208 bc.

Mithraism was the official religion of Rome for some 300 years. Later the Christian Church adopted many of the well known traditions of Mithraism, including Sunday as the high holy day and December 25th as the birthday of Christ. Many Roman soldiers took to Mithraism and spread the idea of birthdays throughout the empire. When later Constantine converted to Christianity, he outlawed Mithraism. But we got birthdays and Sunday as church day as a result.

So what do we make of birthdays and their rituals?

Various customs with which people today celebrate their birthdays stem from the realm of magic. The customs of offering congratulations, presenting gifts and celebrating - complete with lit candles - in ancient times were meant to protect the birthday celebrant from the demons and to ensure his security for the coming year.

There will probably be birthday candles somewhere in the day for me and hopefully no demons, possibly some "offering of gifts," hopefully no executed bakers involved or killing of bulls (as was traditional practices amongst women who mothered Mithras boys). I might get myself a balloon, and get my sugar fix with some cake and break into song - why not ?! One friend suggested I even dance in the moonlight. Who knows, I might take her up on her suggestion, heck even howl at the moon if the spirit moves me. Anything is possible. One thing for sure, there will be the love of my family involved...their laughter and cheer - the best rituals of all.

Man made it may be, involving sketchy histories of hangings, soldiers and deities, I like this invention of birthdays. In simplest terms it instills all good things; celebrations, food, and honoring others. I'll wait to make big plans for the coming year until tomorrow, along with the reflections on yesteryear...today I will fill the day with my own ignorant revelry and maybe a game of pin the tail on the donkey - this time with my own kids on hand.

1 comment:

Muhammad Rashid said...

Such a learned reflection on the day of birthday is unprecendented. I have only one excuse for celebrating birthday, though. It marks the day of importance of ourselves and a new-found zeal to start anew if living a fulfilled life so far is not the custom, and, yes, also appreciating the family and others who join us as a human coming into being with senses and sensibilities. But who knows birthdays of pets will give us as much opportunity to revel in the mirthful company of boys and girls, men and women, around? I liked this article of yours, to say the least.